What Awaits US-Turkey Relations in the Biden Era?

A few weeks before the November elections, a video clip of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden went viral in Turkey and caused a stir inside the Turkish government. The footage included scenes from Biden’s private meeting with members of the editorial board of The New York Times, who asked about future relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if Biden wins the election. Calling the Turkish president an “autocrat,” Biden suggested that Turkey’s opposition should receive US support to defeat Erdoğan in the next presidential elections in 2023 and added his frustration with President Donald Trump’s policy toward the Syrian Kurds. He stated that “The last thing I would’ve done is yielded to him with regard to the Kurds. The absolute last thing.” Biden also expressed his concern about American nuclear weapons in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) air bases in Turkey as Erdoğan’s cozy relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin moved toward a dangerous stage, following Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

As a response, the Turkish president’s communications director criticized Biden’s “pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy” with a threat: “You will pay the price!” On the other side, Biden did not avoid using similarly belligerent language. “Unlike President Trump,” he claimed, “I know what it takes to negotiate with Erdoğan. If I were president, I would make him pay a heavy price for what he has done.” Given this backdrop, it was not surprising that Erdoğan was the last NATO leader to congratulate Biden on his electoral victory.

Unlike Trump’s transactional dealings with Erdoğan, Biden’s restoration of institutional dynamics will have a major impact on US-Turkey relations.

It is well known in Washington that harsh words in presidential campaigns often hit the wall of strategic calculus when the winner actually occupies the White House. Yet, unlike Trump’s transactional dealings with Erdoğan, Biden’s restoration of institutional dynamics will have a major impact on US-Turkey relations. Trump has effectively shielded potential punitive actions by the US Congress against the Erdoğan regime, as the Turkish president enjoyed most frequent access to him and with special treatment. Under the Biden presidency, Erdoğan will face a range of contentious issues including the Russian defense systems and an ongoing federal case against the Turkish state bank for evading Iran sanctions. In the next few years, there is likely to be a set of high priority agenda items in the Biden Administration between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey-Russia Relations and the Future of NATO

Perhaps the most significant foreign policy concern for the Biden Administration will be reviving America’s traditional alliances that were undermined by Trump’s policies. After his presidential win, Biden highlighted the significance of NATO with a pledge of “enduring commitment” to the military alliance. The long silence of Trump’s White House over Ankara-Moscow cooperation that could weaken NATO has frustrated European diplomats, who began to perceive Turkey as “the elephant in the room” when discussing NATO’s future.

Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 sophisticated Russian antiaircraft system raised alarms in the US Congress. Despite intense pressures from Washington and the removal of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, the Turkish government recently tested the Russian missile system to show its firm decision to honor the agreement with Moscow. As a result, an earlier congressional bill that demanded sanctions against Turkey over its S-400 procurement has now been accepted in the final version of the must-pass annual defense bill, which mandates the president sanction Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and within 30 days after the final signature.[1] CAATSA enables punishing sanctions for transactions with the Russian defense sector, and specifically, for the S-400s as they pose a threat by endangering the technical secrets of NATO’s F-35 aircrafts. Sanctions on Turkey may range from banning visas for select targeted individuals to blocking any Turkish state transactions with the US financial system and denying export licenses. As a final favor to the Erdoğan regime, Trump may choose to sign off on a milder option in the CAATSA punitive list before leaving office in order to thwart Biden’s potential imposition of harsh measures.

Initially, Biden’s White House is likely to display assertiveness on the issues, such as that of the S-400s, and this will gain bipartisan congressional support.

Given that the foreign policy team of the new administration is comprised of top leaders from the Obama era, CAATSA sanctions are likely to be discussed with regard to Turkey’s long-term strategic orientation. The Biden team is expected to pursue a carrot-and-stick approach to avoid alienating Turkey completely. Devastating the Turkish economy through hard sanctions may result in the opposite effect, further pushing Turkey into Russia’s arms. On the other hand, as it loses Trump’s protective shield, Ankara will face a long list of demands that would test Turkey’s commitment to the NATO alliance.

In this list of demands, the eastern Mediterranean may be at the top of the agenda—especially if Biden succeeds to close the emerging gap between European leaders and Washington. The European parliament is seriously considering sanctions against Ankara due to Turkey’s aggressive gas exploration in the area that caused recent disputes over maritime borders with Mediterranean states. As a key NATO player, France has become most vocal in criticizing Turkey’s strategic shift toward Russia; it is not only disturbed by the Turkish involvement in the Libyan civil war but also frustrated by Turkey’s ambitious agenda in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Syrian Kurds

As a result of Biden’s vocal support of the Syrian Kurds during the presidential campaign, it will be interesting to watch how Washington-Ankara relations will be shaped by developments in northern Syria. Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, was a strong advocate of providing arms to the Syrian Kurds, but at the same time, he supported Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leadership in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. Unlike many analysts, Blinken believes that these two goals are not incompatible: the PKK’s offshoot in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), can be supported under the mission of the Syrian Democratic Forces against the remnants of the Islamic State as well as Iranian proxies; at the same time, Turkey may receive support for military operations along the Turkish border in northern Syria.

As a result of Biden’s vocal support of the Syrian Kurds during the presidential campaign, it will be interesting to watch how Washington-Ankara relations will be shaped by developments in northern Syria. 

The Assad regime’s future military operations in the northwestern province of Idlib, however, may put Blinken’s diplomatic skills to the test. In the case of a mass exodus from there, the Turkish government is likely to bring the “safe zone” demand back to the table—in order to relocate Syrian refugees alongside Turkey’s borders in the eastern Euphrates. Yet, establishing Turkish protected enclaves in northern Syria is a direct challenge to the Kurdish towns in the Hasaka region; therefore, Washington will be caught between a rock and a hard place. Blinken expresses optimism in cooperating with Turkey in Syria if Ankara is willing to accept compromises. In return for accepting the Syrian Kurdish leadership, Ankara may be given assurances that the PKK does not conduct operations inside Turkey and that the United States could continue to share intelligence with the Turkish military in its fight against the organization’s camps in Iraq. The challenge is most obvious: if Washington is to broker a peace deal between Turkey and the PKK, it should calculate the domestic dynamics inside Turkey. As a result of Erdoğan’s alliance with Turkish ultranationalists, many Kurdish politicians, including elected mayors, still remain imprisoned. Most recently, a top Erdoğan aide was forced to resign due to his call for a release of the famous Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas from prison. Thus, creating a rift between the YPG and the PKK may be a mission impossible for Ankara.

Balancing Iran

Because the Biden Administration’s top priority is to review the Iran nuclear deal, Turkey’s stance toward the Islamic Republic will be a matter of debate in Washington. On the one hand, the Biden team may perceive Ankara as a useful partner to balance Tehran’s influence in the region. Cooperation in Syria and Iraq will be on the agenda, as Turkish interests largely overlap with American interests in countering Iran.

On the other hand, such cooperation will be overshadowed by serious impediments and growing mistrust. Erdoğan’s relations with the Iranian regime have been a flashpoint of major skirmishes inside the Trump Administration due to an ongoing Iranian sanctions evasion case in the US courts against Halkbank, one of Turkey’s largest state-owned banks. Erdoğan has been most assertive in pushing to close the case of Halkbank by frequently raising the issue as a first concern for US-Turkey relations. This has occurred in behind-the-scenes meetings with the White House, according to Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton—given that the charges imply the massive scheme was enabled by direct involvement of the Erdoğan regime itself, including the Turkish president’s closest aides. Bolton saw a contradiction between Trump’s Iran policy and his pressure on prosecutors to save Erdoğan, claiming that there was an “obstruction of justice” due to Trump’s preference for personal business ties over national interest.

If the Biden Administration does not interfere in the case, as expected, the next actions by federal prosecutors could well be a point of contention in US-Turkey relations. If the penalties are implemented without abatement, Halkbank may not be able to survive and the ripple effects will likely damage the already fragile Turkish economy.

US State Department Employees in Turkish Prisons

Since the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, one of the major thorny issues between Washington and Ankara has been the dozens of western nationals in Turkish prisons who were accused of terrorism on bogus charges and actually used as pawns to extract concessions from the United States and European countries—better known as “hostage-taking diplomacy.” The clash over the case of the American pastor, Andrew Brunson, led to Trump’s declaration of economic sanctions against Turkey, which resulted in the pastor’s release and subsequent lifting of the sanctions. Other cases—including those of three US consular employees—have not received Trump’s attention, raising the question if Brunson’s evangelical identity was the main driver of the Trump Administration’s action. Some US senators called to impose Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against the Erdoğan government; these measures punish individuals and entities for severe human rights violations by freezing their assets and shutting them out of the US financial system. Thus far, in relation to the Brunson case, Turkey’s justice minister and homeland security chief were sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act—and later were removed from the list upon Brunson’s release.

Given that the Biden campaign promised to bolster the State Department’s prestige and influence—thus undoing Trump’s decimation of the department—the cases of three imprisoned US personnel may rise to shape the relations with Ankara. Compared to Trump, Biden and his team will be more responsive to the voices of US government institutions and therefore more assertive if the Turkish government takes more hostages for political gain.

Is a Reset in US-Turkey Relations Possible?

For Turkey, the Biden Administration means the end of cell phone diplomacy through presidential offices that disregarded US traditional institutions. Going back to normalcy ushers in both good news and bad news for Ankara. For those members of the Washington elite who perceive Turkey as a long-term geopolitical asset, there may be an opportunity to reset the relations through institutional ties if the Turkish government signals a minimum good faith effort over the S-400s, the most sensitive issue. Although Biden’s election victory has prompted domestic calls within Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party for reform and change, the Turkish president’s latest allies—i.e., the ultranationalist Turkish Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Eurasianist Homeland Party (VP)—have proven to be more powerful within the Turkish bureaucracy to shut down such voices. The calls for reform are mostly driven by concerns over the downward spiral of the Turkish economy; these demands were best reflected by heated tensions following the recent resignation of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s finance minister and most powerful figure in the cabinet. As a pragmatic politician who remembers the negative impact of Trump’s 2018 sanctions on the voting patterns in Turkish municipal elections, Erdoğan may choose to wind down the disagreements and clashes with Washington in order to save the Turkish economy.

As a pragmatic politician who remembers the negative impact of Trump’s 2018 sanctions on the voting patterns in Turkish municipal elections, Erdoğan may choose to wind down the disagreements and clashes with Washington in order to save the Turkish economy. 

A more pessimistic view, however, would predict that the Biden Administration will listen to the argument that the contentious issues with Turkey are too numerous and decide that only an assertive agenda would bring back the Erdoğan government as a meaningful NATO ally. Initially, Biden’s White House is likely to display assertiveness on the issues, such as that of the S-400s, and this will gain bipartisan congressional support. Depending on the Erdoğan government’s willingness to engage, the new administration may seek opportunities to repair the growing mistrust between the two countries.

Mustafa Gurbuz teaches Middle East politics in the Arab World Studies program at American University in Washington, DC.

1 The House of Representatives and Senate passed a $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act with veto-proof majorities. However, President Trump vetoed the bill on December 23, prompting the House on December 28, and the Senate on January 1, 2021, to overwhelmingly override his veto.

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